of the library, Jen poked her head around the kitchen door and saw that Mags was making lunch.

“Hi, Mags.  Mind if I join you?”

Turning around with a welcoming look on her face, Mags said, “Of course you can, dear – but why aren’t you in the library?”

“Locked out.”  Jen shuffled gloomily into the kitchen.

“Locked out?  Why on earth are you locked out, Jen?”

So as they sat down to lunch, Jen told Mags all about the secret room, though she left out her midnight excursion with Dave.

“A secret room, how exciting, dear! Said Mags, her eyes shining.

“Well, it was – at first,” said Jen in a glum voice, “but now it’s turning into an annoyance.  Whilst Lord Harrington-Harrington is holed up in there doing whatever it is that he’s doing, I can’t get any work done.  It’s bloody frustrating, actually.”

Mags was not moved.  “I keep telling you that you spend far too much time cooped up in there, so don’t expect any sympathy from me, dear,” she said, gently.  “Try to look on it as an enforced yet welcome rest.  Take the opportunity to get some fresh air whilst you have the liberty.  Why don’t you go and help Dave in the garden?  Or Rick in the stables?  The stable boy is sick, so I’m sure he’d appreciate an extra pair of hands to help with the mucking out.”

Jen thought about it for a moment.  She was beginning to think that Mags was right.  As usual.    “Hmmm…  Actually, Mags, that’s not such a bad idea after all.  I could probably do with the exercise too,” she said, ruefully.  “I’ve spent too much time sitting on my bum these last few weeks.  I’ll go and get my scruffs on and give Rick a hand.  I haven’t seen much of him since we went riding, anyway.  Thanks for the suggestion” she added as she got up to go.

Mags smiled “You’re welcome, dear.  Before you go, though, would you like to come and help me to feed my friends?”

“Your fr…?  Oh!  You mean the magpies?  Yes, that would be lovely!”  Then she frowned.  “Won’t I scare them off, though?  They don’t know me.”

Mags laughed “Oh, no dear!  I told you before – as long as they think you’ve got food, they’ll be the best friends you ever had!”

As soon as they got outside, Jen heard the sound of wings.  This was followed by a growing chorus of calls and chattering as about half a dozen magpies saw the food containers in their hands and landed on the wall encircling the kitchen garden.

“Where will we put the food?” asked Jen.

“Over there, if you can make it that far,” said Mags, as she set off at a trot towards a paved area at the centre of the garden.

“…If I can make it…?” thought Jen, then her puzzlement turned to surprise as, with a flurry of wings, the tiding descended.  Jen laughed with delight as one settled on each of her shoulders and a third actually landed on the edge of the container that she was carrying and began to tuck in to the scraps – quite unconcerned by the presence of an unfamiliar human.  The other three had gone to Mags, who had just managed to empty her scraps on to the floor before she, too, was mobbed by the hungry birds.

“Bollocks” cawed the one on Jen’s right shoulder.

“Arse” cawed the one on her left.

The one perched on the edge of the container said “More tea, dear?” in a voice so like Mags’s that Jen almost collapsed laughing, finally frightening her three companions off towards the feast laid out on the paving stones.  Jen went and added her offerings to the pile, then went to join Mags, where she was sitting on a low wall around a raised bed nearby.

“Oh, aren’t they beautiful?” Jen said happily, as black plumage flashed purple and green in the sunlight.

“They are, rather,” agreed Mags, equally happily.  “I know they’re wild creatures and I shouldn’t make pets of them, but they’re so sociable that it’s hard not to.”

“Well, they don’t seem to mind” Jen observed, smiling.

Mags gave the feasting birds a critical look.  “No, they don’t, do they?  Mind you, I think they might be getting fat.  You won’t be able to fly soon will you, you greedy birds?” she added with affection.  The magpies ignored her.  Jen was not surprised – they looked to be too busy stuffing their beaks to pay any attention to the twittering of humans.

“So you’ll go and help Rick, this afternoon?”

“Yes.  I really could do with the exercise.”

“Well you’d better go soon then and see if you can catch him whilst he’s having something to eat.  It’s sometimes hard to get his attention when he’s communing with the equine,” said Mags, wryly.  “I’m sure they think he’s one of the herd, you know.  Actually, I think he does too, sometimes,” she added, half to herself.

“Well,” said Jen, rising, “Best be off, then.”

She pelted through the house with far more confidence than she would have done a couple of weeks ago.  She was much more attuned to the layout of the place now – in this part of it, at any rate.  However, when she reached ‘her’ corridor, she slowed, intending to put her ear to the library door to see if she could make out anything of what Lord Ambrose was up to in there.  As she reached the door, though, it opened to reveal Lord Ambrose clad in a long white sheet.  He stepped back in surprise as he saw Jen, and there was a flurry of movement as his hands disappeared inside the sheet.

“I was under the impression that I gave you the day off, Miss Alexander,” he snapped.

Jen blinked.  “Yes, you did sir.  Yesterday.  However, I assumed that since the door was still locked this morning that you needed more time to do… whatever it is that you are doing”  she added, eyeing the sheet with growing amusement which she did her best to hide.

“One should never assume, Miss Alexander,” Lord Ambrose snapped.  “In this case, however, you were correct.  I will need more time to complete my work than I initially expected.  You may consider yourself on leave until my business is concluded.”

So saying, he swept back into the library and shut the door firmly.

Jen stood and looked at the door for a moment, fuming.  Quickly, though, she snapped out of it and raced to her room to change.

She didn’t find Rick mucking out the stables as she’d been led to expect.  The horses were out in a small paddock nearby, enjoying the sunshine and lazily switching their tails at the flies on themselves and each other.  But the stables were empty of Rick as well.  The paddock was very small and, Jen noted, contained within the original walls of the grounds.  She supposed that when the house had first been built, the lord of the manor had needed somewhere to exercise and air the horses that didn’t necessarily involve leaving the safety of the massive walls.  She once again mused on what a nervous past this place must have had.  It chimed oddly with the assertion by Bob The Bar that the family had always been respected hereabouts.  But maybe respect didn’t necessarily preclude the feeling that the lord needed to be overthrown.  They would just tug their forelocks as they did it…  Jen giggled at her stupid idea whilst thinking that it was more likely that the incumbents of other places may have wanted to become the incumbents of this place, too.  She set off around the stables and outbuildings too look for Rick.

She found him in the tack room with his feet up, sipping a cup of tea.

He turned around as her shadow cut off the sun shining through the doorway.  “Hello Jen,” he said, quietly. “What can I do for you?”  He squinted a little at the brightness that was still flooding around her head and shoulders.

“Damn!  What are you doing in here?  I was hoping to creep up on you whilst you were mucking out!” Jen exclaimed in slight disappointment.

He waved his mug in explanation of his presence and replied levelly, “Never a good idea to surprise a man with a pitchfork in his hands, you know”.

Jen blushed.  “Ah – good point.”  Then, as she realised what a dreadful pun she’d made, she reddened even more and groaned in embarrassment.  “Oh dear, I am sorry – that was terrible, wasn’t it?”

He smiled slightly.  “Moderately so, yes.  Never mind, I think the wordplay police have got the afternoon off.  So, again; what can I do for you, Miss Alexander?”

Jen, grateful for the change of subject, said, “I was led to believe that you are minus a pair of hands today.  Since I seem to be on an enforced break, I thought I’d offer you the use of mine.  …that is, if you need a hand…” she finished, slightly uncertainly.

Rick frowned.  “Enforced break…?”

Jen sighed.  “It’s a long story.”

“Better sit down, then.  Tea?”

“Please.”  Sighing again as she sat down, she told Rick the whole story as he furnished her with refreshments.  When she got to the part about going to see Lady Meriel with Dave, Rick interjected, “Oh, so you’ve met grandma, then?”

Jen was stunned.  “Grandma?”

“Yes”

Your grandma too?”

“Of course.  Didn’t you know?”

“No, I didn’t!”

“Oh.  Well, yes.  My grandma, too.  As well as Ambrose’s.”

“You’re brothers?”

“Half-brothers, actually.  Not that we’re anything alike, thank goodness.” he added, grimly.

“How come?” Jen blurted, without thinking.

Rick looked pained.  “My mum was Lord Asterion’s second wife.  I gather she wasn’t too happy in her blessed state of wedded bliss.  She was always going to be second fiddle to his sainted dead wife but she had terrible trouble coping with that.  She killed herself.” he said stiffly; hurt, sorrow and other things flashing across his face as it closed down into its customarily stony aspect.

“Oh Rick, I’m so sorry!  Of course, it’s none of my business,” she said quickly, aghast at her own insensitive question.

He softened in the face of her chagrin.  “Don’t worry.  Still hurts a bit, that’s all.  It happened when I was young.  Never found out what my father thought about it.  He never really mentioned it.  He already had an heir in Ambrose, and I think he only married mum in order to ensure the dynastic succession.  I was a sort of spare.  I suppose it doesn’t make much difference now that they’re both gone.  Ambrose and I have never got on too well.  ”

“Oh, Rick, that’s awful!  I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.  It wasn’t too bad growing up a spare part.  I kept out of his way as much as I could.  I knew my mum had loved me, and that her suicide was nothing to do with me – that made up for a lot of stuff.”

Jen was surprised at this relative torrent of words falling from the usually taciturn Rick, and tentatively mentioned it.

Rick immediately shut up, as people will when someone draws attention to their speech and they’re uncomfortable with it.  But then he looked at Jen, his face unreadable, and said softly “You’re easy to talk to.”

Jen was flattered, but didn’t quite know how to respond, so she muttered, “Oh, um… thanks”, ducking her head and taking a sip from her tea.

They sat in contemplative silence for a while, both sipping their tea and staring into space.  Jen was minutely examining the tack on the walls and wondering what to say or, indeed, if anything needed to be said.

Eventually, Rick rose and said “Come on.  Got a spare fork and some wellies that should fit you,” and went out into the sunshine.  Jen put her cup down and followed him out.

She was glad of the wellies for, although she’d worn sturdy boots, the wellies were more easily washable – even if they were a tad too big.  Rick showed her what she needed to do, and they mucked out the stables in a companionable silence.  Jen found the rhythmic nature of the work soothing and was also enjoying the chance to just do something physical and not have to think about anything much.  She knew that her muscles would probably be sore and aching tomorrow, but she didn’t care and was in fact toying with the idea of coming back tomorrow if the library was still off-limits, no matter how stiff she felt.

As the afternoon wore on, however, she was toying with the idea of going to bed and never leaving it again.  She was exhausted.  After what seemed like an eternity, they had finally completed the task.  Jen came out of the stables into the long light of the evening covered in straw and other things, trembling slightly from her exertions.  Rick smiled when he saw her and said “Hungry?”

“Starving!” said Jen emphatically.

“Come on, then – time to feed the workers.”  He led the way back towards the tack room.

Jen shuffled after him in a slight daze and slumped onto a chair whilst Rick bustled around producing bread, crockery, spoons and mugs and laying the table.  He then went to a small, portable hob in one corner of the room, and lifted a simmering stew pot from there on to the table.  She dug in to the thick, salty stew as instructed and ate with more of an appetite than she’d had in a long time as Rick made a pot of tea and placed that on the table, too.  Then he sat down and began to eat.

They ate in silence for a while, Jen being ravenous and too intent on her food to think about conversation, and Rick being his usual quiet self.  Jen found the salty chunkiness of the stew very satisfying and welcome after the afternoon’s hard labour.  When the edge had been taken off her appetite and she was able to slow down and eat more normally, she raised her head and said “Good stew.”

“Thanks.”  Then, “you might want to slow down a bit, though.  Hiccups.”

Jen giggled in embarrassment at her ravening.  Then, sure enough, she hiccupped.

Rick smiled.  “See?”

Jen hiccupped again, more violently this time, and groaned.

“You ok?” frowned Rick, concerned.  Jen had doubled up, grimacing.

“They’re always so painful!” she managed, before hiccupping again, clutching her chest and wincing.

“Get bad ones, do you?  Me too.  Here – try this.”  He fetched her a mug of water from the sink in the corner.  She began to drink, but Rick said, “No, no.  Not like that.  Upside down.”

Jen looked at him incredulously.  “Upside down? (hic)”

“Like this, look.”  He fetched another cup of water, and demonstrated bending almost double, fitting his chin into the mug, and drinking.

Jen laughed at the ridiculous sight, then hiccupped again and clutched her chest.  “Ouch!  You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Works, I swear.”

“Really?”

Nod.

“Well, ok then…” she said doubtfully.  She stood up, bent over, sipped the water, and hiccupped again.  “It’s not working!” she said indignantly, from her awkward position.

“Drink it straight down.  Don’t pause for breath – just keep going until the mug’s empty.  And try not to drown.”  He added the last with a rare grin.

Discomfited, Jen drank.  And drank.  And drank.  By the time she’d finished, she felt like her head was about to explode.  As she finished, though, she straightened up and took a few tentative deep breaths.  Amazingly, this ridiculous-looking trick seemed to have worked.  “I don’t believe it,” she said.

“Just try and breathe normally for a bit, and you should be ok.” advised Rick.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” she asked him.

Rick shrugged.  “Been using it so long I can’t remember.”

“Well, it’s brilliant!  Thank you!”  Without a thought in her head but gratitude, she gave him a big hug.

Rick flushed and stood a bit stiffly, not quite knowing what to do.  “Uh…  you’re welcome…”

Jen suddenly realised she’d thrown her arms around a very shy man who she really didn’t know all that well and released him quickly.  “Oops, sorry Rick.  Got a bit carried away.  But I really am grateful.”

He smiled a small smile and his eyes sparked, just a bit “Oh, I think I can cope” he said, as he sat down again.

Now it was Jen’s turn to flush, and she sat down quickly.  Unable to cope with the silence she could feel approaching, Jen started to speak. “I can’t believe how well that works!” she began, trying to regain her equilibrium.  “Hiccups are always such agony.  And I make such weird noises when I do it that everyone laughs at me.  It’s so not funny!  And now I finally have a way of getting rid of the bloody things.  Thanks for not laughing at me, by the way.”

“S’ok.  Like I said – I get them like that, too.  Probably why I learned the drinking upside-down trick in the first place.  I’d try absolutely anything to get rid of them.  No matter how stupid it made me look,” he added with another sly glint.

“Hey!” protested Jen.

As they both picked up their spoons and resumed eating, Jen said, “This really is great stew, by the way – did you make it?”

“Yeah.  It’s not bad, I suppose.”  Rick replied, modestly.

“Master Chef as well as master horse whisperer.  And you can cure hiccups.  Do you do anything else in your spare time?  Write Nobel Prize winning novels?  Leap tall buildings in a single bound?  Save the earth from alien invasion before breakfast, perhaps?”

Rick smiled.  “Nah – had to give all that up.  The horses got jealous.  What about you?  What do you do when you’re not cataloguing libraries?”

“Not much – I’m pretty boring, really.”

“Actually, you’re not.  You’re fun and I like talking to you.”

Jen beamed with pleasure.  “Really?  Thanks!”

They finished their meal and carried on chatting over cups of tea.  Jen, not realising how tired she really was from the day’s exertions, got drowsier and drowsier, eventually falling asleep between one sentence and the next.

Rick was disappointed, as well as slightly ashamed of himself.  He’d been so enjoying the unaccustomed pleasure of conversation that he’d kept Jen talking as long as possible.  And now she was asleep on her chair.  He had a moment of panic, realising that he didn’t know where her room was, but not wanting to disturb her to ask as she looked so worn out and peaceful.  He sat and watched her sleeping for a while.  In the end, though, he decided that she needed to be in a bed.  Which one didn’t really matter so long as she was comfortable, so she could sleep in his since it was nearest.  He scooped her up from her chair very gently, so he could carry her up to his flat above the stables.  She sighed and snuggled up against him as he did so, like a child.  He smiled and carried her up to put her to bed.